Recently on a Saturday morning, I walked into my local Duane Reade in Manhattan to pick up a prescription. The pharmacy opened at 9 am; I had ~10 minutes to burn. I sat in a folding chair a few feet from the pharmacy counter and casually perused my phone for news headlines. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man casually placing an array of goods into a plastic garbage bag; oblivious to the prying eyes of the Duane Reade employee looking scornfully at him.
I looked up. There were still a few minutes until the pharmacy opened so I decided to strike up a conversation with the Duane Reade worker. She told me this man was a “regular.” “A regular,” I asked? “Yes”, she said, and went on to detail his routine: He casually walks into the store, fills a bag full of items to his liking (or with the highest resale value) that have a cumulative dollar value of just < $1,000, to ensure his crime is only a misdemeanor, and walks out. (In NY State, 4th degree grand larceny is defined as theft over $1,000 and below $3,000.)
The Duane Reade employee was pleasant and eager to converse. As such, we continued our conversation for a while longer. While shaking her head in disbelief she said, “if I took a can of Pringles without paying for it, I’d get fired. This guy walks into the store, steals $999 dollars’ worth of stuff, doesn’t even hide the fact that he’s stealing in broad daylight, and without a second thought walks out of the store with a bag full of stolen merchandise.”
I then shook my head in disbelief and asked if employees ever tried stopping him. “We are not allowed” she sighed. Then I asked if they even bother calling the police. She told me they do, but he’s usually gone before they arrive. “Occasionally they arrest him, but he is back on the streets in < 24 hours.”
Unfortunately, incidents like these are now commonplace in New York City. Indeed, we have reached an inflection point where repeat offenders for shoplifting and other petty crimes face so few consequences, that it has emboldened them to commit even more crimes.
The result is that large retailers, and small business owners who are the lifeblood of their communities, are being forced to hire private security guards, install expensive theft-deterring technology, and raise prices to help offset the losses incurred due to the surge of pilfered goods. Dedicated employees like the nice lady I spoke with are being forced to work in increasingly hostile environments and the overall shopping experience for customers is degraded.
A primary reason New York (and other major cities in America) are caught in a feedback loop of crime, catch, and release is because of recently enacted bail reform laws that all but eliminated cash bail and made it close to impossible to detain certain repeat offenders. Regrettably, in New York state, certain lawmakers seem more interested in protecting the rights of criminals - and to be certain their rights should not be subjugated - than ensuring that law abiding, tax paying citizens and businesses can be assured a safe and orderly community.
In a 2019 piece on bail reform, we wrote, “At The Quintessential Centrist, our view is that under most circumstances, cash bail should be abolished. Reason being, it is one of, if not, the most explicit example of legal discrimination currently being practiced in America. The use of cash bail is categorically unfair and a blatant violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, because it directly discriminates against poor people.” We stand by that statement.
When New York and other states eliminated and or greatly curtailed the practice of cash bail, we supported it, and we still do. However, with the elimination of cash bail in the Empire State came other aspects of reform that in our view, deserve scrutiny, including:
• Prosecutors can only request bail in particular felony cases.
• Judges must impose “the least restrictive alternative” in lieu of bail.
• Almost all misdemeanors, nonviolent felonies, and some violent felonies result in the perpetrator being automatically released.
Crime & Punishment
Stealing is different from assault. Somebody who swipes a six-pack of soda should not be detained pending trial or if found guilty, incarcerated for 10 years, 10 months, or even 10 days. A fine or a few hours of community service are appropriate for first or second-time offenders. However, unabashed retail theft with little or no consequence fosters a community of zero accountability, increased levels of lawlessness, and degradation of daily life. This must change.
If a detainee is a serial offender, arrested multiple times for theft and other minor infractions in a relatively short time frame, pre-trial lock up must be an available option, if only for a deterrent. Said former NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, “Judges need discretion to be able to keep repeat offenders…off the streets…What’s the common denominator? People that are arrested multiple, multiple, multiple times and released.”
This week, a serial shoplifter named Lorenzo McLucas was arrested for stealing cosmetics at a Duane Reade in Manhattan. It was the 122nd time Mr. McLucas had been corralled by police, mostly for theft. Yes, you heard that correctly, 122 arrests! Fifty of those arrests occurred just this year. And why not, because of NY’s new bail laws, despite being arrested 50 times in ~6 months, McLucas was (again) released on his own recognizance.
To compound the story and make an even bigger mockery of NY’s twisted bail “reform,” Mr. McLucas was set free the prior day for a different offense! But because the law now states that prosecutors can only request bail for the type of misdemeanor McLucas was arrested for, if he had other cases pending, they had no choice but to release him because he had no “open” cases. We almost forgot to mention, McLucas also missed 20 court appearances.
Even embattled District Attorney Alvin Bragg whose corresponding stance with NY’s new bail laws has left many people seething stated, “We cannot accept a system where individuals who shoplift again and again cycle in and out of jail, just to shoplift again.’’ We agree.
An NYPD officer summed it up more accurately, “It’s f- -k,ing ridiculous. They just keep letting him out, and he does the same thing again. I feel so bad for the people who own retail stores. What’s the purpose anymore?”
Reform and improvement are not always positively correlated. Abolishment of cash bail makes the judicial system more equitable. But prosecutors and judges must regain the authority – and use it – to keep specific repeat offenders off the streets, in jail, where they belong pending trial. Retail stores, their patrons, and hard-working employees deserve equal protection under the law too.